LAND RICH, CASH POOR
THE STORY OF A SMALL TOWN CO-OP LEGEND: CHARLIE LONG
"Its god's land, I'm just the caretaker. Everybody is just a caretaker of the land. we all will leave, and it's up to us to leave it better than we found it."
"you can't close people off from the land and expect them to also care for it."
Every small town in rural America has some things in common: a gas station, one or two stop lights or stop signs, and maybe even a restaurant where you will find countless locals discussing everything from John Deere to John 3:16. This story starts out the same in many regards, but I would venture to say that not every small town has a Charlie Long.
Charlie grew up in the small North Georgia community of Hinton, GA to parents that couldn't read or write. Born in 1946, into a farming family, his father ran a local sawmill and a milk dairy. His family farmhouse didn't get electricity until he was 6 years old in 1952. They put their milk and butter in a spring-fed cooler for refrigeration. Despite farming, homesteading, and living off the land growing up, Charlie showed cattle and graduated high school in 1964. He want into the army following high school, where he served in Vietnam as a sniper from 1964-1967. While in the army, his parents almost lost the family farm, however he sent all the money he made back home to save the farm. After getting out of the armed service, he came back home to help his parents where he began buying cattle and farming corn for a living. In 1972, he got married and began chicken farming when his father-in-law passed away unexpectedly. Over the next few decades he became one if the biggest chicken farmers in Northwest Georgia for Gold Kist, and still runs a few houses to this day. At the height of his career, he served on the board for Gold Kist.
He purchased his first piece of land in 1972, followed by his second in 1974. He raised sweet corn on both properties to sell at the Atlanta farmers market to pay for the land. He strategically staggered his planting times to ensure he had sweet corn coming in all season for sale to pay for his first 63 acres known as the "Johnson Bottoms."
From an early age, Charlie had an innate love for the land and was tied to the land at the hip through necessity - providing for this family with wild harvest, food they farmed, and timber for the saw mill. As a young boy he saw fescue take over yards and pastures that lead, in part, to the decline of the bobwhite quail. In the 1950s, the chestnut blight was finishing off the few remaining American Chestnuts in the Southern Appalachians. This made a large impact on forest across the east, and has lead Charlie to be steadfast in helping the reintroduction with over 400 of the new genetically modified American/Chinese Chestnut trees planted on his land base for the sole purpose of wildlife benefit.
In 2012, Charlie was one of the first members to jump on board with the local quality deer management (QDM) cooperative. He has seen the paradigm shift in deer numbers from almost non-existent as a kid, to the exploding populations of the 1990s, followed by a crash in the early 2000s with the expansion of coyote predation on fawns into the eastern US. Together with the local community he helped play a key roll in the growth a quality deer management cooperative that now spans over 1,300 acres as of 2020 - and is enrolled in the National Wildlife Cooperative project to document private landowner co-ops. Charlie does not hunt, but he allows family and friends to utilize his land for hunting opportunities in hopes of leaving the resource better while passing on a love for the outdoors to all that use his land.
At the age of 74, Charlie still farms row-crops to this day - mainly field corn. He still runs a large chicken house operation and takes time to help mentor others while being heavily involved in the local community. He serves as a trustees of Scottish Rite Children's hospital (CHOA) in Atlanta, GA. Charlie serves as the President of the local Shiners for Gordon and Murray Counties, where they raise money for scholarships and medical bills for children when their families cannot afford them. His property has been used for over 44 weddings in the past few years. Over the past decade, Charlie and his wife have planted over 250,000 daffodil and tulip bulbs on their property for the local community to enjoy each spring, and he plants about 10-25k more each year near his cabin. Charlie still lives on his property, where you will find him somewhere on his land, or helping out in the community each day.
When I sat down with Charlie this past summer, his love for the land, wildlife, and the legacy he is leaving was evident. If you were to meet Charlie Long while passing through town he may look like any other small town farmer from rural America. I can tell you, your assumptions wouldn't be more wrong. Charlie loves his land, his family, conservation, and the legacy of helping others in his community. He embodies what the National Wildlife Cooperative aims to foster: connections in local communities by bringing neighbors together with their love for wildlife and land management. Conservation needs more individuals with a land ethic like Charlie Long. The future of conservation depends on it.
Special thanks to Morgan Boswell (Charlie Long's Granddaughter), for providing photos for this article. Thank you to Charlie Long for his time taken to sit down with the National Wildlife Cooperative to be interviewed.
"I can tell you honestly right now, I don't know how much land I own. That's not what matters TO ME, I want good neighbors that care about the land. I don't count it as my land or my acres."